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You May Be Eating More Than You Think — Here's How Food Journaling Can Help

Can you remember every meal you ate this week? If not, you're not alone. But studies indicate that food journaling can help you reach your dieting goals.

By Donna Sarkar
Apr 6, 2021 6:15 PM
Food Journaling 2
(Credit: gvictoria/Shutterstock)


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Ask any health expert and they’ll tell you that, sadly, there is no magic cure to losing weight. Yet as soon as you type a few words into Google to get started, you may find yourself flooded by a deluge of dieting tips and techniques, all claiming to offer the ultimate weight loss hack. So how can you actually begin to work on shedding some extra pounds?

For starters, it can be easy to lose track of what — and how much — you eat in a day. Research points to food journaling as a potential solution. This simple method of journaling every meal can prove to be an essential guidebook for your weight loss journey. A food journal can prove to be much more than a diary that mentions the brownie you had for dessert. It has the power to reveal unhealthy food patterns, dispel portion-size myths, and even reveal emotions behind when and why you eat.

How Do You Start Food Journaling?

The concept of food journaling is true to its name. To begin, all you have to do is write down everything you eat and drink throughout the day. Sounds easy, right? In fact, you don’t even have to pull out your smartphone or install any new mobile apps. A person can opt to use pen and paper to track their food choices on any given day explains Su-Nui Escobar, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It's important to write down everything you eat and drink, she says, and also note portion sizes and preparation methods. This is where the traditional pen and paper method can come in handy; specifically, for writing yourself extra notes in the diary's margins.

You may be wondering what, exactly, you should track in a food diary. The answers depend on the goal you wish to achieve. What, when, where, and why — these basic questions may help you jumpstart the process. According to Harvard Health Publishing, successful food journaling needs to be both accurate and concise.

It seems simple enough to write down what you're eating each day of the week. But it’s important to also consider portions and the amount you are eating. This can be tracked by listing measurements, like how many cups of soda you drank. Keeping track of the time of day (and where you're eating, like in your kitchen or at your computer) can also help you notice certain patterns that may be contributing to your weight gain. For instance, researchers have found a link between obesity and nighttime eating. It’s equally important to understand why we're eating at any given time. For example, are you eating because you're hungry or because you're bored?

Asking yourself these important questions can help you identify your habits and patterns. Food tracking applications like MyFitnessPal make the task even easier by giving us a break down of calories and macronutrients in the food we’ve consumed. The success of using such applications to identify trends was explored in a 2019 study that followed participants logging their food through MyFitnessPal over the course of three months. The participants were divided into three groups. The first group tracked what they ate every day, the second group tracked only their weight for the first month and then started tracking their food, and the third group tracked both their weight and their food.

The results of the study showed participants in all three groups had lost at least 5 or more pounds. The participants in the third group lost the most amount of weight with the average being nearly 7 pounds. Surprisingly, none of the participants followed a specific diet, suggesting that the act of journaling itself was more important than which data points they tracked.

Why is Food Journaling Effective for Weight Loss?

There's no magic behind a simple technique like food journaling. The reason it works has a lot to do mindful eating, or the practice of being conscious of your eating choices. Research has proven that practicing mindfulness can lead to less impulsive eating, choosing healthier food options and racking up fewer calories. It can also help us see where we're going wrong in our diet. “I often hear frustrated clients complaining about not losing weight despite eating healthy. But when they write it down, they realize they are eating much more than they think,” says Escobar. “Weight can easily happen with mindless eating.”

Mindless eating happens to the best of us. Whether it’s eating junk food when we’re sad, bored or even distracted, slipping into this behavior is rather easy. According to the CDC, almost 37 percent of adults in the U.S. consume fast food on any given day.  The simple act of writing these habits down can help bring awareness to the type and amount of food you're consuming.

When Tracking Starts to Feel Restrictive

What happens when self-monitoring your health turns into an obsession? While there's no shortage of advantages to being aware of your food intake, today’s diet-centric culture can often be exhausting. And with a constant pressure to look and feel healthy, attempts at dieting can even provoke certain health disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.

A study on the usage of MyFitnessPal amongst individuals with eating disorders found that over 73 percent of participants said the application contributed to their eating disorders. Results indicated that tracking food intake can contribute to, and even exacerbate, eating disorder behaviors. Common patterns used by the participants to aid their restrictive behaviors included obsessive logging and severely restricting food intake. A number of participants explained that they became obsessed with logging their food. One participant discussed how she saw the app as a game where she would eat try to eat less than her calorie requirements to "win." By seeing that she ate under her calorie budget, she would feel a sense of accomplishment, which intensified her restrictive behavior.

One way to overcome the pressures of diet culture is to have food tracking focus on healthy eating habits rather than the number of calories consumed, explains Escobar. Counting how many servings of fruits and vegetables you're having, or even tracking the amount of water you may be drinking, is a great first step. At the end of the day, food journaling is just another tool we can use to improve our health and well-being.

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